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e-Briefing | Digital Living Room

Tapping Another End of the Spectrum

* Broadcasters such as Clear Channel plan to transmit Web downloads via stations' airwaves.

April 26, 2001|JON HEALEY | jon.healey@latimes.com

To spur the television industry's sluggish transition to digital broadcasting, some station owners are looking beyond the TV set to other digital devices in the home and office.

Clear Channel Communications Inc., one of the larger TV and radio ownership groups, thinks one promising possibility might be high-speed Internet downloads. The company plans to use a portion of its stations' digital airwaves to transmit Internet text, audio and video at as much as five times the speed of the fastest dial-up modem.

To receive the downloads, consumers wouldn't need to spend several thousand dollars on a digital TV. Instead, they'd need a digital TV plug-in card for their computers, a sub-$300 gadget that can receive both data and digital TV pictures.

Clear Channel's Delta V service won't match the top speeds of cable modems and digital subscriber lines. But in small to mid-size towns, where most consumers can't get either of those services, it could be the next best thing.

The move by Clear Channel's new wireless division is one example of the expanding role local TV broadcasters could play in consumers' lives, given the flexibility of their digital channels. Unlike their conventional channels, which have little room for anything other than TV signals, each digital channel is a data fire hose with plenty of extra megabytes.

That pipeline could be used to transmit digital movies and music to storage devices in the home overnight, as digital data company iBlast of Beverly Hills proposes to do. Or it could supply video clips, text and graphics to businesses for electronic billboards, kiosks and automated teller machines, as Triveni Digital has been demonstrating with technology partners.

None of these approaches requires anyone to buy a digital TV. However, the companies all need to build demand for services that don't exist today, a difficult endeavor that already has sent one ballyhooed datacasting company into bankruptcy.

They also must convince consumers to spend a few hundred dollars on equipment, which isn't trivial for the average household.

Equipment suppliers such as Thomcast and SkyStream Networks say that more TV stations are buying the gear needed to deliver data to homes and businesses alongside their digital TV programs, although "there's a lot of other people still a little bit gun-shy," as Clint Chao of SkyStream put it.

Citing Clear Channel's Delta V efforts, Chao said, "Bigger players are getting involved, so that's a good sign."

Clear Channel is testing the Delta V service in Cincinnati, with plans to offer it to the public by the end of the year. Mike DeClue, the company's director of engineering, expects that unaffiliated stations will offer the service, too, so it won't be limited to the 19 Clear Channel stations in mid-size markets.

The service comes with plenty of caveats, and here's the biggest: TV stations transmit data; they don't receive it, so Delta V can't provide an always-on, two-way connection to the Internet.

Users would have to dial into an Internet service provider--Clear Channel doesn't care which one--to send requests for Web pages, e-mail and the like. The requests would get sent to the TV station's equipment, which would grab data from the Internet and pump it out at high speed as part of its digital TV signal.

The data requested by each user would be broadcast all across the local network, but it would be encrypted to deter anyone but the intended recipient from receiving it.

Because the bandwidth provided by each station--4 million bits per second--must be shared by every user, downloading speeds drop as the number of users rise. DeClue said the system wasn't designed to serve huge numbers of people, just enough to help stations cover the multimillion-dollar expense of switching to digital.

The point isn't to compete with cable and phone companies, whose high-speed services cost about half as much as Clear Channel plans to charge (about $90 a month). Instead, it's to plug the holes in those companies' coverage, which are gaping in rural and suburban areas.

In that sense, they'll be competing with the new two-way wireless services from the satellite TV companies, whose price Clear Channel plans to beat.

"We are broadcasters first," DeClue said. "We believe in high-definition, free, over-the-air TV. We would never, ever jeopardize HDTV. All we're trying to do is make a buck right now so we can pay for the transition."

They're certainly not making a buck off of advertising on the digital channels.

That's because there's virtually no audience for them--only about 100,000 homes have digital sets with digital tuners, or less than one-tenth of 1% of all U.S. households.

That's why broadcasters would love to find other ways to cash in on their digital channels. About 250 stations have signed up for the iBlast service, and a few hundred more have banded together in the Broadcasters Digital Cooperative to consider collective proposals like Delta V. Such services have been talked about for several years, even before federal regulators lent the broadcasters a second channel and ordered them to switch to digital.

With both iBlast and Delta V actively testing their technology, consumers might soon see some of the benefits of digital broadcasting, even if they don't get the picture.

*

Times staff writer Jon Healey writes about the digital living room.

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